In Warren’s All the King’s Men, Jack’s ultimate reconciliation does not come, as most readers see it, from learning to accept full responsibility for his actions where he formerly had none, but rather from his ability to define for himself, through his historical researches and creation of iconic “images,” a clear picture of the boundaries of his responsibility—its burdens as well as its limits. This envelope of responsibility is for Warren thoroughly historical—and envelope whose contours change through time, crucially dependent upon the narration of past events in the present. Jack’s “brass-bound idealism” is, despite his sarcasm, a quite sophisticated version of Josiah Royce’s absolute idealism. This philosophy is morally irresponsible precisely because it makes Jack too complicit, not because it absolves him of his complicity. As he attempts to define the boundaries of responsibility in his own life, Jack’s beacon is the Cass Mastern story and the successful definition of the envelope of responsibility it entails.
"Cass Mastern, Josiah Royce, and the Envelope of Responsibility,"
Robert Penn Warren Studies: Vol. 7, Article 8.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/rpwstudies/vol7/iss1/8